Collectively, these talented start-up founders are leaving their mark on everything from healthcare and online video to Web security and e-Commerce. Based on what they've done so far, that's only the beginning. Here are the women I plan to keep my eye on in 2012—and beyond.
Think someone else should have made the list? Let me know @salubriousdish — Christina DesMarais
Amy Baxter doesn’t hail from Silicon Valley or New York but her start-up is making big waves in the medical industry. Baxter is a medical doctor and the creator of Buzzy, a bee-shaped device that takes the sting out of shots by confusing the body’s nerves and distracting the patient. Baxter received a $1.1 million Small Business Innovations in Research grant from the National Institutes of Health, is invited to lecture nationally and internationally on pain and sedation issues, and still practices medicine. Buzzy won a 2011 Medical Design Excellence Award, competing against companies like Johnson and Johnson and Novartis. With zero advertising, the all-female company has sold 11,000 units since 2009 by word of mouth. And she’s creating jobs: Baxter plans to move production from China to the U.S. in March.
With a background in engineering and art, 22-year-old Chung is passionate about making the world a better place. That passion led her to develop Jerry the Bear (co-designed with Aaron Horowitz), a cuddly robotic and interactive educational toy for children living with Type I diabetes. The next few months will be busy for the duo. They’re taking Jerry the Bear to Betaspring Incubator in February in Providence, Rhode Island, and the toy will soon be used in clinical trials. Previously Chung co-founded Design for America, an award-winning national student-led initiative that uses design to solve social problems. DFA has expanded to eight universities, raised over $300,000 and landed on the cover of Fast Company magazine (Inc.’s sister publication).
If you have a branded video you want people to see, British entrepreneur Sarah Wood knows how to make it go viral. Check out this fantastic YouTube video produced by T-Mobile in which look-alikes pull off an entertaining version of what Kate and William’s royal wedding might have been. Unruly Media made sure it got more than 25 million views. Remember Evian’s Roller Babies and the Old Spice Guy? Wood was behind those too. Since launching in 2006, the company says it has delivered, tracked, and audited 1.3 billion video views and executed more than 1,400 successful social video campaigns for companies. Wood has helped take Unruly Media from a three-person operation to the world’s leading social video platform, occupying 40 percent market share. With a revenue run-rate approaching $50 million (2011 full year revenue was $25 million), 2012 looks like it’s going to be even better for Wood and her company.
Houzz, the wildly popular Web platform and app that connects home design professionals with consumers, is the brainchild of design fanatic Adi Tatarko, who also happens to be the business whiz behind the site and app. (Her husband and co-founder is the technologist.) Together, they have created a useful tool for anyone embarking on a remodeling or building project. You create an “Ideabook” for your project and load it with photos—more than 40,000 architects, contractors, and interior designers have uploaded images. You can also contact the vendors behind those photos to buy "the look." Houzz currently gets 3 million unique visitors a month and 50 million page views. And Houzz recently landed a strategic marketing relationship with Lowe’s. Tatarko says she expects the company to be profitable this year.
Frustrated with the lack of career resources for ambitious, professional women, these three ex-McKinsey consultants realized they were sitting on a huge market opportunity. So they founded the online career community The Daily Muse. They launched in September and went from zero to more than 70,000 monthly job-seekers in three months. They have women like Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, Google VP of Location and Local Services Marissa Mayer, and New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly doling out career tips and syndication deals with Forbes, Inc., Huffington Post, and Business Insider. In the works: Revenue-generators like a job search platform to help women uncover interesting jobs at new companies, and professional development courses for a fee.
At 30, Clara Shih already has a long list of big successes under her belt, including developing the first business application on Facebook, writing a New York Times best-seller (The Facebook Era) and making her two-year-old start-up, Hearsay Social, cash-flow positive in its first year of operation. She likes to say that social media is a new business paradigm, possibly "bigger than the Internet was a decade ago." And she’s aiming to put her company in the best possible position to take advantage of it—Hearsay Social is dashboard that helps companies manage their Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ accounts. Oh, and her part-time gig isn’t too shabby either: Starbucks recently selected her to replace Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on its board of directors.
While working for The Kauffman Foundation, the world’s largest organization devoted to entrepreneurship, 29-year-old Desiree Vargas Wrigley saw first-hand what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. Then she caught the start-up bug herself and launched GiveForward, a crowdfunding platform that helps individuals raise money to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses. In addition to getting help with medical bills, families get letters and messages of encouragement that donors send using the platform. When freestyle skiing pro Sarah Burke recently died from a training accident, a GiveForward fundraiser in her honor raised over $164,000 in the first 24 hours. To date, the company has helped raise more than $10 million and recently received recognition from the White House.
If there’s going to be disruptive innovation in the healthcare space, Halle Tecco may very well have something to do with it. In 2011 she founded Rock Health, the first seed accelerator exclusively for digital health-related start-ups. So far, 13 start-ups have gone through the program, which provides capital, mentorship, operational support and office space in San Francisco. Nearly half of them have received VC funding and one—Skimble—is profitable. To cover overhead and fund the start-ups’ grants, Tecco landed a number of high-profile backers like Nike, Procter & Gamble, Genentech, and UnitedHealth and top VCs like Accel and NEA. Plus, she has built partnerships with hospitals including Mayo Clinic, UCSF, and Harvard Medical School.
Not only did she code the first version of TaskRabbit herself, Busque bootstrapped it for two years before receiving $25 million in angel and VC investment in 2011. The website is essentially an online marketplace for outsourcing errands and tasks. According to the company, since May it has tripled its monthly task volume and net revenue, increased its customer base seven fold, and grown to 45 employees, up from 9 a year ago. The website, which currently sees more than $4 million in economic activity each month, is available in seven major metros and is coming to five more soon. Busque, who serves as chief product officer, has also joined the TEDx speaking circuit.
The secret sauce behind Michelle Zatlyn’s fast-growing company? Test, test, and test some more. When she co-founded CloudFlare it was originally a Web security service only, but Zatlyn learned through customer research that IT managers desperately needed a security solution that didn’t slow down their websites. So she did more research and ran tests, eventually figuring out a way to optimize the delivery of Web pages while blocking threats and limiting abusive bots and crawlers from wasting bandwidth and server resources. CloudFlare became two products in one: a spam-killer and performance-enhancer. As a result, in just over a year CloudFlare signed on more than 100,000 customers. It currently receives more traffic than Twitter, Wikipedia, and Amazon combined.
Rebecca Woodcock came up with the idea for a new health start-up after experiencing the inefficiencies of today’s health care payment system first hand; a close friend of hers suddenly developed epilepsy, and blew through her insurance deductible in just a few months. Woodcock co-founded CakeHealth to help people better understand and manage their health costs by letting them track their deductibles and coverage, catch medical overbilling, and find ways to save. Woodcock is a graduate of the Founder Institute, a global start-up accelerator for entrepreneurs, where she was one of six women in a class of 80, and recently won "Most Disruptive" start-up of 2011 among all graduates. Catch her at SXSW on the panel, “Anything you can do, I can do in heels.”
For being a first-time start-up founder, it didn’t take long for Caren Maio to master the art of the pivot. When she and her team pitched TechStars in 2011 they were originally accepted to take part in the reality TV show with a different—and fundamentally flawed—concept. Within a couple weeks they scrapped UrbanApt (which would have been sort of a Yelp for apartments) and created Nestio, a slick website and iOS app that makes hunting for an apartment easier because it lets you bookmark listings from any site, share them with roommates, and compare them side by side. They hit on the idea after doing loads of market research on New York City apartment hunters. Even today Maio will buy strangers coffee at Starbucks in return for real-time feedback on Nestio.
After 10 years of owning an Emmy-winning documentary production company, Erika Trautman started to wonder why online video wasn’t more innovative and interactive like the Web itself. So she set out to do something about it herself. In 2011 she co-founded Flixmaster, an easy-to-use platform (currently in private beta) that lets you link videos to other clips, text, images, forms, or maps. So advertisers, for example, can create video spots in a choose-your-own-adventure-style—viewers decide what happens next by selecting one of several options. Trautman says these “branching” videos are 16 times more likely than a regular video to rack up 200,000 views, her benchmark for a successful viral video. Viewers spend twice as much time watching these sorts of clips and twice as many buy products advertised in them.